When Darth Vader appeared in the hallway of the Tantive IV in A New Hope, silently surveying the carnage his Imperial stormtroopers wrought against the rebels, he instantly became the standard against which all movie villains would be compared. Thanks to the brilliant design of Ralph McQuarrie, Vader didn’t have to say anything to be imposing. David Prowse’s statuesque physique dominated the frame and the sound of Vader’s breathing apparatus made audiences shudder. But when he did speak, the booming bass of James Earl Jones completed the character. This was one bad dude. Ruthless, steadfast, and unforgiving. Darth Vader is a tough act to follow, so how do the new bad guys introduced since the Disney-era began compare?
The Emo Strikes Back
The son of Han Solo and Leia Organa is a character we have barely gotten to know, but who has already impacted pop culture in a big way. The mask of Kylo Ren has become as ubiquitous as the mask of Vader or Boba Fett. He’s on cereal boxes and posters and sold in toy stores and Halloween costume shops. But as a villain, is he on par with Vader? For some fans that answer is no. Or at least not yet. While he has been embraced by most, there are some fans who remain unconvinced. Chief among the complaints is the accusation that Kylo Ren is little more than a poser – a brooding, tempestuous hothead with daddy issues. He idolizes his grandfather, Darth Vader, and yet displays very little of the self confidence and quiet menace indicative of his predecessor.
But isn’t that the point? Kylo Ren is haunted by a pull to the light side, and by the feeling that he’s not quite cut out to be as ruthless and cruel as Vader. This is why Supreme Leader Snoke gives him the ultimate test of commitment to the dark side by instructing him to destroy the ones closest to him. Snoke believes Vader failed because of his attachment to his family. If Kylo could kill his father, he would do something his grandfather could not and his journey towards the dark side would be assured. Although Kylo Ren continues to struggle with this task right up until the very moment he is face to face with Han, he does end up committing the unthinkable act.
But does that make him stronger than Vader? The answer is no. It is apparent during the fight following Han’s death. Wounded by a blast from Chewie’s bowcaster, Ren faces off against Rey and Finn with his cracking lightsaber in hand, and continually punches the wound in his side, bolstering his strength through pain. This is someone who has just killed his own father. The fact that he must summon the dark side through physical pain proves that he has blocked his emotions. Otherwise he could tap into the dark side through his rage or grief. His journey to the dark side remains incomplete. We won’t know how far into darkness Kylo Ren has fallen until we see The Last Jedi, but when The Force Awakens ends, it’s clear that he is still a lost soul, grappling with his place in the universe and the legacy of his grandfather looming over him. Will he be forced to carry his guilt as well?
This makes him one of the most complex Star Wars villains to date. While some find Kylo Ren’s angst and tantrums tedious, they do make for great storytelling. A flawed hero is undeniably more interesting than an infallible one, and a villain who shows complexity and doubt is just as compelling.
Blue Man Groupies
Once relegated to the convoluted reaches of the Expanded Universe, Grand Admiral Thrawn has recently been brought into canon in a big way. At Star Wars Celebration in 2016 it was announced that he would be the featured baddie in Star Wars Rebels season 3. Fans erupted with applause. Even better, Timothy Zahn, the author who created Thrawn 25 years ago in the novel Heir to the Empire was returning to write a new book. It was an exciting choice on the part of Lucasfilm. Thrawn had always been a fan favorite, generating cult-like status among faithful devotees to the earlier books and comics. But would this new iteration of Thrawn be just as interesting? Would the new Thrawn measure up to the old one?
For the most part he has, although Thrawn appears to be a villain with a split personality in the current canon.
Rebels showcases the even-tempered Chiss as a cold, calculating strategist. He isn’t simply one or two moves ahead of everyone else in the game. Thrawn owns the chess board and all its pieces. His cool, dulcet tones belie a deadly adversary who lures the Ghost crew into a false sense of complacency and then springs the trap on them at the moment of his choosing. Thrawn in Rebels is unmistakably evil – a brutal opponent with an uncanny talent for calculation and prescience. This is not quite the same Thrawn we find in Timothy Zahn’s canon novel of the same name.
In Thrawn, Zahn paints the portrait of an individual who is preoccupied with details and is a master at manipulation, but he also has an agenda that is logical. He does not kill indiscriminately, and may even show compassion in instances where it will benefit his larger goal. Unlike Vader, who is motivated by a desire to control the fate of the galaxy by any means necessary, Thrawn is driven by a need to protect the Chiss Ascendency from a mysterious threat in the Unknown Regions. He chooses the Empire as the best hope his people have to defend against that threat. This does not necessarily contradict the way Thrawn is depicted in Rebels, but it certainly suggests a more nuanced and complicated character study.
Darth Vader is a blunt instrument who uses brute force to achieve his goals. Thrawn, by contrast, is a scalpel. He seeks control through careful study and meticulous planning, but he is not implacable. He is motivated to ally with the strongest power possible to head off the mysterious threat facing his people in the Unknown Regions and to this end he can be reasoned with if his honor is at stake. With Vader, you always know where you stand. With Thrawn, you’re never quite sure because he knows you better than you know yourself. We have just begun the 4th and final season of Rebels and a follow up to Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn is also in the works. It remains to be seen if these two depictions of the Grand Admiral will coalesce or contradict.
Where There’s Snoke, There’s Ire
Snoke is Darth Plagueis. Snoke is Ezra Bridger. Snoke is Mace Windu. Snoke is that kid who asked for help when Anakin came to wipe out the Jedi.
If you subscribe to any of these theories you have probably been told at some point by fellow fans or even Pablo Hidalgo that your Snoke theory sucks. Star Wars fandom has an insatiable preoccupation with uncovering secret identities in new characters. For decades we’ve been chasing the high we felt the first time we learned that Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker’s father. The fervor surrounding Snoke’s (alleged) secret identity is matched only by the disdain from some fans who couldn’t care less. Truth is, we don’t have enough to go on at this point to judge who Snoke is or is not. We know very little about him from The Force Awakens, and references to him elsewhere in canon have been fleeting.
But this is why many fans are drawn to Snoke. Mystery is alluring. Boba Fett first captured the imagination of fandom for two reasons: his Mandalorian armor was cool and we knew next to nothing about him before the prequels. But sometimes we look for duplicity where there is none. It’s understandable of course. We need something to dissect and speculate about in the years between the saga films and there are lots of clues in canon as to who or what Snoke might be.
The Unknown Regions (also referred to as Unknown Space) is part of the western galaxy beyond the Outer Rim. Is Snoke from this part of the galaxy? Is he the dark side presence that Palpatine was searching for when he resurrected a working observatory on Jakku just before the destruction of the second Death Star, as detailed in the Aftermath trilogy? Palpatine managed to chart a safe course into the region with the use of probes, ancient computers, and even the expertise of Grand Admiral Thrawn, who alludes to an ancient threat existing there. Palpatine set up a contingency plan in which the Unknown Regions would serve as a fallback position should the Empire lose its war with the Rebel Alliance. This is where the remnants of the Empire reformed to become the First Order with Snoke as Supreme Leader.
According to the Visual Dictionary, Snoke was initially drawn to Ben Solo because he embodied a balance of Force potential, both light and dark. If we are comparing archetypes, Snoke has more in common with the Emperor than with Darth Vader. The Emperor was mentioned once in A New Hope, appeared as a hologram in Empire and finally came to the forefront of the story in Jedi as the antagonist pitting father against son. His motives are simple. The Emperor doesn’t need a secret identity or a complicated origin story (although his backstory in the prequels is certainly interesting). The Emperor is pure evil. He is the snake in the garden of Eden, presiding over Vader and pushing Luke closer to the dark side. In all likelihood, Snoke’s role will be no more impactful and no less important.
At this point the greatest twist could be a reveal that Snoke is not like the Emperor but actually more like Vader, serving an older and much more dangerous Master we have yet to meet – someone or something from the Unknown Regions that has been hinted at in ancillary canon. If this does not come to pass, however, will fans be satisfied if Snoke is just … Snoke?
In the early years of the Galactic Empire, following the Clone Wars, there were many individuals who were eager to take advantage of the new order. Orson Krennic is one such individual. Although his background studies include a penchant for architecture, Krennic’s real strength is his ability to read people and to manipulate situations to his advantage. While most of the villains in the current movies are motivated by ideologies or their place in history, Orson Krennic is in it for himself. He is preoccupied with status and career advancement. How his goals are achieved, or how many lives he ruins on the way up is irrelevant.
Krennic, with his white tunic and flowing cape, is the embodiment of Imperial arrogance and superiority. He has all the hallmarks of a sociopath. He lacks compassion and empathy and is predisposed to narcissism. He uses his childhood friendship with Galen Urso to gain an advantage in developing the secret weapons project that is part of the Death Star’s construction. He does so by lying to and manipulating Galen over the course of many years. So thick was the veil of deceit that Galen was unaware what he was actually helping to create until it was too late.
Orson Krennic is a man constantly flirting with disaster and leaving a path of destruction in his wake. In the book Catalyst, which takes place before the events of Rogue One, Krennic is responsible for setbacks and accidents involving the Death Star’s weapon system and yet he manages to turn each incident around in his favor. A weapons malfunction on Malpaz that costs lives and results in the evacuation of the planet is blamed on terrorists. Krennic convinces Mas Amedda, the Grand Vizier of the Empire, to promote him in order to create the impression that the secret program is in better shape than it is. His chief rival within the Empire is Grand Moff Tarkin, who, by comparison, is much more effective in his aspirations and far more cunning. Krennic’s naked ambition hits a brick wall, however, when he pays a visit to Mustafar. Desperate to curry favor with the Emperor and following an attack on Eadu that claimed the life of Galen Urso, Krennic assures Lord Vader that the recent incidents on Jedha and Eadu would not endanger the Death Star program. He takes it one step too far when he asks for assurance about the Emperor’s favor and Vader force chokes him back to reality.
It is fitting that Krennic is brought to his knees before the ultimate evil in the universe. Compared to Vader he is petty, sniveling, and small. Krennic becomes more fearful and desperate as his machinations fall apart. When Vader is backed into a corner he is the kind of villain who becomes more terrifying. Orson Krennic gets more sloppy. By the time he meets his end on Scarif, he is nothing more than a trapped animal staring up at the monstrosity he devoted so much of his life to create, its green laser the last thing he will ever see. To add insult to incineration, the command to fire comes from none other than his chief rival, Tarkin. We might be tempted to pity Krennic lest we forget how much pain and suffering he caused to those closest to him.
He may not be the most dangerous or fearless villain in the galaxy. He’s not even the most effective. But Orson Krennic’s failures, rivalries, and self-serving ambition serve as reminders of what it takes to get ahead (or not) within the ruthless hierarchy of the Empire.
How Do You Solve A Problem Like Phasma?
When Gwendolyn Christie walks into a room she commands attention. At 6 feet 3 inches tall, the willowy actress towers over most women and some of the men. But it is her radiant energy and enthusiasm that leaves the lasting impression. She is an exuberant and welcoming ambassador for the Star Wars franchise and her love for it is obvious to anyone who had a chance to see her host Star Wars Celebration two years ago in London. Best known for her role as Brienne of Tarth on HBO’s Game of Thrones, she broke new ground when she was cast as the mysterious Captain Phasma, the first onscreen female stormtrooper.
Phasma’s chrome armor was an early concept for the look of Kylo Ren. But it was so striking that director J.J. Abrams chose to keep it and build an entirely new character. When she first appeared in The Force Awakens trailer, audiences took notice. It was Boba Fett all over again. Badass armor. Mysterious origin. Eager anticipation to see the character in action. But when the time finally came, many fans were let down. Captain Phasma’s role in the movie was not much more than an extended cameo. Although she was given a well-established relationship to AWOL stormtrooper Finn, she is strangely absent during a critical hand-to-hand fight scene that occurs later in the film. Even more perplexing, Phasma is quickly overtaken during the third act and succumbs to a demand to lower the shields to Starkiller Base. As a final disservice, she exits the film as the butt of a trash compactor joke. Both Phasma and Christie deserved better.
Fortunately the problem of Phasma has been addressed in a run of comics as well as a recent novel. In Delilah S. Dawson’s excellent book Phasma, the character’s origins are explored in greater detail, and she proves to be more than a cool costume. She comes from a primitive warrior clan on the post-apocalyptic planet of Parnassos at the edges of wild space. And from the first moment she encounters a marooned Brendol Hux (the father of Armitage Hux seen in The Force Awakens) she seizes the opportunity to transform herself into the ultimate First Order recruit. She is driven by a pathological desire for betterment and will stop at nothing, and kill anyone who gets in her way. Even if that means family or fellow officers. This drive is not unlike the single-mindedness of Darth Vader. Both characters view compassion as a weakness. Like Vader, Phasma also has formidable physicality. She is lethal in hand-to-hand combat but has little patience for concepts like loyalty, duty, or honor. That is how she differs from Vader, who is committed to the principles of the Sith and loyalty to his master Palpatine, inasmuch as a Sith Lord can be loyal to someone they are bound to one day supplant. Vader believes in the dominance of the Empire. Phasma believes only in herself and her dominance over others.
Captain Phasma will most certainly have a larger and more impactful role in The Last Jedi since her business with Finn is not yet finished. Director/writer Rian Johnson has already hinted that fans will not be disappointed with how she is presented this time.
All of these villains have proven that the more complex an antagonist, the more interesting and vital they are to the story. Strong heroes need strong villains to challenge them. Some pose a physical threat while others pose a more psychological one. While none of these bad guys will ever take the place of the original Dark Lord of the Sith, they all have contributed to the rich and exciting tapestry of villainy in a galaxy far far away.